Nightwing (1979) -**½
Believe it or not, I’ve been meaning to review this movie since practically the day I started. While I was waiting for Bats to work its way around to the dollar theater, I got hit with a powerful urge to revisit Nightwing, an earlier killer-bat movie regarding which I had fond memories of childhood cheese. The trouble was, the only video store I knew of that had a copy went bust before I got around to renting it, and the movie has never come my way since. Until now, that is. Finally, I can bask once more in the sickly glow of this singularly ill-considered late-70’s Jaws rip-off. And while it isn’t quite as much fun as I remember it being, it’s still pretty tough to argue with a movie that features both the most hysterically alarmist defamation of an unpopular animal species I’ve yet seen committed to film and what might just be the single worst performance of David Warner’s career.
The truly remarkable thing about Nightwing is that it is, in a sense, a double Jaws rip-off. Unlike most such films, which are exclusively the brainchildren of movie producers seeking to cash in on the craze Stephen Spielberg set in motion, Nightwing was adapted from a novel which had itself clearly been written to cash in on the success of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. What makes this so significant is that, among the four of them, Martin Cruz Smith (who also wrote the book), his co-scripters Steve Shagan and Bud Shrake, and director Arthur Hiller have managed to perform something close to the exact opposite of the magic trick carried out by Spielberg four years before. Whereas Steve turned a remarkably crappy novel into a truly brilliant film, the present four clowns took a lumpishly mediocre book and turned it into a movie that makes Benchley’s Jaws look like Spielberg’s! While hardly an achievement to be proud of, it is nevertheless an achievement of some sort.
Oh— and it’s about Indians. ‘Cause, you know— it was the late 70’s, Mother Nature’s Revenge was in, and as everyone is well aware, the American Indians are Mother Nature’s designated spokespeople among mankind. Kind of like the Lorax, only with gambling casinos and no body hair. (Note, however, that somewhere between print and celluloid, somebody got a raging case of the chickenshits, and switched out the Hopis and Navajos of the novel in favor of a pair of made-up tribes called the Maskai and the Pahana— the latter is especially funny given that the book uses the term “Pahan” as the Hopis’ derogatory name for white people.) Our setting is the border between the Maskai and Pahana sectors of the two tribes’ joint reservation, where a relatively affluent rancher has called in both Maskai deputy Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso, of Black Christmas and Death Ship) and Pahana Tribal Council chairman Walker Chee (Stephen Macht, from Galaxina and Graveyard Shift) to figure out just what in the hell has happened to all of his horses. Every animal the rancher owns is lying dead or dying in the corral, their hides covered with hundreds of small but frightfully deep bites and their bodies almost completely drained of blood. The rancher wants to believe the culprit is a mountain lion or a pack of coyotes, but that’s obviously ridiculous. Neither animal leaves bite marks even remotely like the ones that killed the horses, and there isn’t a single track on the ground except those made by the horses themselves. Duran is stumped, and while Chee and the doctor he brings with him are loath to admit it, so are they.
After leaving the ranch, Duran goes to see Abner Tasupi (George Clutesi, who played almost exactly the same role in Prophecy the same year), the ancient medicine man who raised him after his parents died. Abner lives in almost total isolation from the rest of his people; the Maskai for the most part believe that he’s less a medicine man than an evil sorcerer, a man with strong ties to the death-god Yehwah (Yehwah?!?! You’ve got to be fucking kidding…), and they long ago drove him out of the community. When Duran arrives at Abner’s shack, the old man is almost finished casting some sort of spell. When asked what he’s up to, Abner tells his “nephew” that he’s about to end the world. Between the Pahanas and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the oil companies that have just started poking around on Maskai land at the behest of Walker Chee, there’s just no hope for their people except to invoke the apocalypse and trust in Yehwah to keep them safe until he’s ready to create a new world for them to inhabit. If all goes according to plan, the end of the world will commence that very night. Duran leaves in disgust, convinced the old priest is just stoned out of his mind on datura root— which, to be fair, he is.
Meanwhile, there are three sets of new arrivals on the reservation. The first is Roger Piggott (Ben Piazza, from The Candy Snatchers and Fer-de-Lance), the head of Peabody Oil. Walker Chee has rediscovered a stratum of oil shales which had been mined by the Spaniards centuries before, and he wants to cut a deal with Piggott to open them to development. The catch is that the shales are located not just on Maskai territory, but in Maskai Canyon, the holiest ground in all the tribe’s domain. It’s going to take either some very slick huckstering or some out-and-out dirty pool to get the go-ahead from the Maskai Tribal Council. The second is a missionary group headed by John Franklin (Donald Hotton, of The Hearse and The Runestone), whom Duran’s white med-student girlfriend, Anne Dillon (Kathryn Harrold, from Vampire and Raw Deal), is trying to convince to front the money to expand the ramshackle clinic she runs in the main Maskai settlement. The third interloper is biologist Phillip Payne (David Warner, from The Omen and Waxwork). Payne is, to put it bluntly, batshit crazy— which is only appropriate, when you get right down to it, because the specific nature of his mad obsession is to travel the world, hunting and exterminating colonies of vampire bats. Sound to you like we now know both what killed those horses up at the ranch and the precise means whereby Abner intends to end the world?
Abner, as it turns out, is the bats’ first human victim; Duran finds his bloodless body on the floor of his shack the morning after their last conversation. Also struck down on the first night of the bats’ anti-human activities are a young shepherd and most of his flock. (And while we’re on the subject of the attack on the sheep, it might interest the filmmakers to know that the vampire bat generally attacks while its prey is sleeping, after stalking it for a considerable distance on the ground. It would do the bats precisely zero good to swoop down from above en masse and cause a stampede, the way they’re depicted doing here.) Payne stops by the scenes of both attacks (putting himself right at the top of Duran’s shit list by sneaking into Abner’s shack and trying to post-mortem him without authorization), and what his subsequent analysis turns up is not good. The reservation isn’t just facing a plague of vampire bats, it’s facing a plague of, well, plague. The bodies of the dead shepherd and his equally dead sheep are swarming with bat fleas, and the blood in those fleas’ guts is swarming with Pasteurella pestis.
So it’s a good thing Anne Dillon is taking Franklin and his Bible-thumpers out camping in the wilderness, isn’t it? Sure enough, the bats put in an appearance at their campsite (my guess is their sensitive ears were offended by the missionaries’ ghastly campfire rendition of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), and kill everyone but Anne, Franklin, and one other man, the latter of whom succumbs to blood loss, exposure, and plague early the next morning— that is to say, after Franklin flips the campers’ van over in his frantic rush to escape from the bats. Franklin himself breaks his legs in the wreck, and he doesn’t last a whole lot longer. By the second nightfall, it’s just Anne out in the desert, waiting to be found by either Duran or the bats. Luckily for her, the deputy has a second, somewhat friendlier run-in with Payne, realizes what he and his people are up against, and makes the connection between the region where the scientist believes the bats are on the loose and the part of the desert where Anne and her campers were supposed to be staying. Duran and Payne come to the rescue in the nick of time, and it falls to them to track the bats to their lair and destroy them. Wouldn’t you know that Vampire Central would be not only the most sacred spot in all of Maskai Canyon, but also the exact center of that shale field Chee wants to open up to mining? And what do you want to bet the end of this movie is going to try to make us believe that Abner planned it that way precisely to preserve Maskai Canyon as a commerce-free zone?
You have to wonder what makes a man say, “Yeah, Jaws was great, but you know what it was sorely lacking? Native American mysticism. Chanting Indians make everything better.” At least in Smith’s novel, the Hopi magic bullshit is kept to the sidelines, as an element of the “Youngman Duran wrestles with his roots” subplot. Here in the celluloid version, we are explicitly asked to believe that the vampire bats are in town because Abner invited them, and that their eventual destruction is due to Duran’s counter-conjuring in their lair— after all, in the world we inhabit, there’s no way a dinky little fire like that one (and well isolated from everything else inflammable, no less) could spread so quickly to ignite the entire cave! What makes this a fatal fuck-up rather than a legitimate reinterpretation of the story is the clamorous disharmony between the newly elevated supernatural trappings and the movie’s matter-of-fact overall tone. It’s like the filmmakers are saying, “Yeah, this is the real world, alright, but we’ll make an exception for these guys on account of they’re Indians.” Meanwhile, all the effort Martin Cruz Smith originally made to deal fairly with the issues surrounding the Hopis and Navajos (or Maskai and Pahanas, if you insist) has been tossed aside. Duran is no longer a conflicted, secularized sometime-Anglo-wannabe, but a fully certified and credentialed Native Fucking American— which incidentally deprives a few exchanges of dialogue imported verbatim from the book of any sense or meaning. Walker Chee, who in the novel was a well-meaning if ruthless man who honestly believed for defensible reasons that the only hope for his people was to embrace certain elements of the Western paradigm, has been transformed here into a garden-variety Evil Capitalist, apparently because Smith’s present partners in crime were unable to conceive of the conflict between traditional ways and modern in any terms more sophisticated than stark black and white. And since we’ve already established that the Indians are the good guys here, that means their way of life must be purely good, even if adhering to it has the practical effect of condemning them to an existence of grinding poverty, caustic ignorance, and unremitting hopelessness.
Nor is Nightwing ever able to achieve more than inadvertent comedy in its capacity as an animal-attack flick. It never ceases to amaze me how little the state of the art in Bat-on-a-String technology has advanced since the early 1930’s. About the one good thing one can say about the rubber critters in this movie is that they’re at least not outrageously enlarged as compared to real vampire bats. Beyond the issue of their individual crumminess, there just aren’t enough of the things onscreen at any one time to make it anything like convincing that they could inflict the amount of damage that the movie depicts. And who knows— maybe the filmmakers realized that, and it was to compensate for the bats’ manifest lack of intrinsic scare value that the character of Phillip Payne has been so completely transformed. In the novel, he’s basically a standard-issue obsessed scientist, his hatred of vampire bats tied up with both his claustrophobia and his feelings of inadequacy relative to his father, who drowned in bat guano many years before. (Okay… when I put it that baldly, I guess it does sound just a little bit sillier than the usual obsessed scientist origin story…) But here, he’s just totally fucking nuts, and his dialogue whenever he talks about the bats is so shrilly apocalyptic that it cuts right through even the densest thickets of cockamamie mystical jibber-jabber. When he got to the end of his first big, “why I kill bats” speech, and climaxed it with “I kill them because they are purely and simply evil,” my jaw just about fell off my head. It’s one thing for Sam Loomis to say that about a guy who stabbed his sister to death with a carving knife when he was six years old, but vampire bats?!?! I mean, if nothing else, they’re much too cute to be “purely and simply evil,” and if Smith and company were hoping to use Payne’s Cassandra complex to cover for the limitations of their charming rubber beasties, then it backfires about as completely as one could ask for. Furthermore, if you thought Donald Pleasence looked like he needed to have his overacting inhibitors tuned up in the Halloween movies, you’re just not going to believe David Warner in Nightwing; he gives John Carradine a run for his money. The bats don’t get nearly enough work to make this movie as entertaining as it should be, but it’s still worth a look for fans of unusually hapless Jaws knockoffs, or for great lovers of exceptionally bad performances by normally good actors.